By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009
As Taliban forces edged to within 60 miles of Islamabad late last month, the Obama administration urgently asked for new intelligence assessments of whether Pakistan's government would survive. In briefings last week, senior officials said, President Obama and his National Security Council were told that neither a Taliban takeover nor a military coup was imminent and that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal was safe.
Beyond the immediate future, however, the intelligence was far from reassuring. Security was deteriorating rapidly, particularly in the mountains along the Afghan border that harbor al-Qaeda and the Taliban, intelligence chiefs reported, and there were signs that those groups were working with indigenous extremists in Pakistan's populous Punjabi heartland.
The Pakistani government was mired in political bickering. The army, still fixated on its historical adversary India, remained ill-equipped and unwilling to throw its full weight into the counterinsurgency fight.
But despite the threat the intelligence conveyed, Obama has only limited options for dealing with it. Anti-American feeling in Pakistan is high, and a U.S. combat presence is prohibited. The United States is fighting Pakistan-based extremists by proxy, through an army over which it has little control, in alliance with a government in which it has little confidence.
The tools most readily at hand are money, weapons, and a mentoring relationship with Pakistan's government and military that alternates between earnest advice and anxious criticism. As criticism has dominated in recent weeks -- along with reports that the administration is wooing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's principal political opponent, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif -- the partnership has grown strained.
"What are the Americans trying to do, micromanage our politics?" a senior Pakistani official said testily. "This is not South Vietnam."
As Zardari arrives this week for his first official visit with Obama -- part of a tripartite summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- the administration has asked Congress to quickly approve hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency military aid for Pakistan. That money, and billions more over the next several years, is to come with new authority for the Defense Department to decide what to spend it on.
Obama has also backed a five-year $7.5 billion economic assistance package and is resisting congressional efforts to impose strict conditions on any aid to Pakistan. Last month, the administration orchestrated an international donors' conference in Tokyo that netted $5.5 billion in pledges for Pakistan.
When he sits down with Zardari on Wednesday at the White House, Obama will urge him to put more effort into building domestic support by meeting critical public needs and to resolve his differences with Sharif and others so that he can concentrate on governing, according to officials who discussed sensitive and fluid Pakistan issues on the condition of anonymity.
Of particular concern are hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have been displaced by fighting in the North-West Frontier Province, U.S. officials said.
Security proposals up for discussion with Zardari and other members of his high-level delegation include counterinsurgency training for Pakistani army troops at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, the United States or elsewhere. The administration wants to expand a small, in-country training force -- now limited to about 70 Americans -- that is working with the Frontier Corps, the local, poorly armed force in the border regions.
As 17,000 additional U.S. troops deploying to southern Afghanistan this spring and summer begin to push Taliban fighters toward the Pakistan border, there are hopes the extremists can be trapped in "hammer and anvil" operations with Pakistani forces in the southern province of Baluchistan. Right now, however, Pakistan fields only one army brigade and about 40,000 minimally trained and equipped Frontier Corps members in the vast region, according to U.S. officials.
In deference to Pakistani objections, the administration has not initiated covert ground attacks, approved by the Bush administration last year, in mountain villages farther to the north, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where it believes high-value al-Qaeda figures are located. But Obama authorized stepped-up attacks on the area by missiles launched from unmanned drone aircraft.
Although the missile attacks are privately approved by the Pakistani government, despite its public denunciations, they are highly unpopular among the public. As Zardari's domestic problems have grown, the Obama administration last month cut the frequency of the attacks. Some senior U.S. officials think they have reached the point of diminishing returns and the administration is debating the rate at which they should continue.
Always simmering, administration concern about Pakistani governance rose sharply last month when the Parliament approved an agreement between regional authorities and the Taliban to authorize sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley, located about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad. Rather than lay down their arms in exchange, Taliban forces began moving eastward. By the third week in April, they had established a presence in Buner district, 60 miles from the capital, with no apparent government resistance.
The day after the Buner reports surfaced, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton infuriated the Pakistani government by telling Congress it was "abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists" and that the situation posed a "mortal threat" to the world.
"Absolutely, they're getting irritated," a senior U.S. official said of the Pakistanis. Clinton, he said, "knows she went too far" in her unscripted testimony. "But on the other hand," he said, "it was that kind of statement that helped wake up the Pakistanis."
A Pakistani military offensive in the Buner region was underway Tuesday, even as Obama's national security team met at the White House, and continued through the weekend. Administration officials said they were watching to see whether the military followed through or would simply stop without finishing the job, as it has in the past.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's government says it is in no mood for criticism or conditions on aid. After "billions of dollars were poured into Pakistan under the dictatorship" of Gen. Pervez Musharraf by the Bush administration, Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani said yesterday, the Obama administration has produced little but promises and disapproval of the democratically elected government.
"It is unfair to blame the civilian leadership that is bravely mobilizing the nation against terrorism when it is our American partners who have also slowed us down in the war effort by slowing down the flow of assistance," Haqqani said. "We trust that President Obama's emphasis on Pakistan will also translate promises into deliverables."
"You can't spend more in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, "and then wonder why the effort in Pakistan is lagging behind."